Broadcasters attending the CES show in Las Vegas last week were cheered by the consumer electronics industry's progress in developing technology that will allow local stations to beam signals to cell phones and other portable devices using their existing digital (DTV) spectrum.
They expect a working technical standard to be in place by February 2009, their self-imposed deadline for being ready to commercially deploy mobile DTV services. Some broadcasters believe mobile television capability has a huge potential because it could provide consumers with plenty of useful information about everything from weather to traffic to sports, in their own markets.
For part of the week, broadcasters seemed to be in Vegas just for the ride. Indeed, they could be seen riding in demonstration vehicles showcasing the two major competing technologies, the A-VSB (Advanced-Vestigial Side Band) system developed by Samsung, Rohde & Schwarz and Nokia, and the MPH (Mobile Pedestrian Handheld) scheme created by LG Electronics and Harris, and checking out prototype receivers on the show floor.
More than 100 executives from networks and major station groups, along with leading technology vendors and NAB President David Rehr, attended a reception hosted last Tuesday by the Open Mobile Video Coalition, the consortium founded last year by ION Media Networks CEO Brandon Burgess to promote the development of mobile digital television.
The OMVC, which now represents more than 800 stations including 20 major groups and the Association of Public TV Stations, has been working with the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) to speed its standards-setting process. At CES, the OMVC announced that it is teaming with satellite operator SES Americom to conduct consumer trials of both A-VSB and MPH that will feature a mix of national and local content and track consumer usage patterns.
Separately, both Samsung and Harris said they have been conducting their own transmission tests in various markets, including large cities with challenging reception environments such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Those trials will continue through the spring.
The OMVC is scheduled to begin its own field trials in two markets on Feb. 18, exactly one year before analog broadcasts will cease. That is when local stations could start to face new wireless competitors using reclaimed analog spectrum the broadcasters have relinquished.
ATSC Chairman Glenn Reitmeier, who is also VP of technology standards and policy for NBC Universal, has suggested that if field trials went well, ATSC could be ready to make a fundamental decision on the “physical layer,” or core transmission system, for mobile DTV by May or June.
At CES, he confirmed that ATSC is still on that schedule, and said progress by both vendors and broadcasters “has been absolutely tremendous.” In particular, Reitmeier noted the multi-million-dollar investments that vendors like LG and Samsung have made to show working prototypes with integrated chips at CES.
While many broadcasters have worried about a potential standards battle between A-VSB and MPH delaying mobile DTV's rollout, Reitmeier says that won't happen. “There is going to be one standard,” he says but he added it's “too soon to say” whether the standard might incorporate technology from both the A-VSB and MPH camps.
Sinclair Broadcasting was supporting both mobile DTV demonstrations at CES by lending spectrum from its Las Vegas stations KVMY, for A-VSB, and KVCW, for MPH. Both demonstrations showed two mobile streams of varying bit-rates being transmitted alongside a standard high-definition signal within one 6 MHz digital channel.
Sinclair President David Smith calls mobile DTV “the single biggest opportunity I've seen in my 35 years in the business.” Like Reitmeier, he expects a decision on the transmission system by late spring, which should allow the rest of the standard to be finalized by early 2009.
“We need to get this done,” says Smith. “The time for talking is over, and the time for execution is here.”
The major difference between the two demos was that LG had placed working MPH receiver chips in a variety of mobile devices, including a cellphone, personal navigation device and Kenwood in-car display, that all worked at speeds up to 50 mph. Samsung didn't show mobile handheld devices in its vehicle, just at its booth, as it was using a second generation of its A-VSB technology for the field demo and didn't have corresponding receiver chips ready. (For more on the mobile DTV demonstrations at CES, listen to this week's Tech Talk podcast on www.broadcastingcable.com.)
Broadcasters say that bandwidth utilization will be one of the key criteria in picking a standard, but that at a high level, the technologies are pretty much the same.
“Everybody on the [OMVC] board believes that you could pick either one of these technologies tomorrow and be entirely comfortable with it,” says John Eck, president of NBC's Media Works technology and operations unit and one of OMVC's eight board members. “They're both great [groups], and they both will stand behind their technology.”